JUST under three weeks ago, several of us in the North East Press pack privately identified tomorrow’s game against Manchester United as the match in which Gus Poyet’s men would, in all likelihood, be relegated.
It was a conclusion arrived at in the wake of Sunderland’s match against Everton; a game in which Poyet’s players had performed genuinely well – been the better side, even – but yet again lost.
That match was the Wearsiders’ fifth league defeat in a row.
It was their eighth defeat in nine in all competitions and it left them seven points away from safety ahead of away trips to Manchester City and Chelsea.
Seven points adrift already, the chances are it would be eight, nine or 10 by the time the Black Cats’ last four games arrived.
And anyone who retained real optimism of Sunderland surviving as they contemplated that prospect risked being labelled not so much an optimist, as an idiot.
Even the manager had said before for the Everton defeat that it would take “something of a miracle” for Sunderland to stay up.
Now, with your permission, let me meander away from the point for a moment
Let’s all acknowledge something about football which should be accepted as a universal truth: that it is by its very nature a revisionist sport, a developing drama where former critics can quickly forget their former criticism.
Jordan Henderson anyone?
That’s just one example.
My own pet gripe is feeling that Sunderland were living through a fantastic era for the club in Peter Reid’s first five seasons in charge, only to hear the manager, club and players nightly dissed by radio critics.
It used to boil my blood.
If Sunderland got promoted, so what? Should never have been relegated in the first place, the argument would go.
If Sunderland were second at Christmas? Disappointing, why shouldn’t they aim to be top?
If Sunderland finished seventh at the end of a Premier League season? Not good enough, should be doing better.
Some people just seemed unable to revel in the good bits, to enjoy those great days as they unfolded.
It was ridiculous and I thought it soured things.
Now, from the perspective of a decade later, things look a bit different.
The achievements of those players are rightly given their due.
Hundreds will no doubt make the trip to Molineux on Bank Holiday Monday to celebrate the likes of Kevin Phillips, Niall Quinn and Co.
And rightly so.
Of course, you don’t need a decade to make things look different. It can happen in a fortnight. That’s why it’s wise never to call the odds or make predictions.
Occasionally, you can try to have it both ways.
I know one sports journalist in the North East (who shall remain nameless), who tends to make a habit, at the start of the season, of predicting both the best and worst for Sunderland.
At some stages of the campaign, he’ll come in after heavy defeats, sidle up to fellow hacks and announced: “Sorry, but I told you at the start that Sunderland would go down this season, didn’t I?
At other times, after a positive result or two, he has adopted an air of impenetrable wisdom to murmur with a smile : “Told you Sunderland would stay up this season.”
My point (because I had one!) is that immediately after the Everton game, and the seven-point deficit and City and Chelsea ahead – there was very little division of opinion – you would have struggled to find ANYONE who really believed Sunderland would stay up.
And yet, not for the first time this season, the Black Cats have over-turned all the odds and pulled off a stunning transformation to take us into this weekend.
“Amazing game football,” sniffed man-of-the-moment Connor Wickham as he reflected on that particular characteristic of the game. “Amazing how it can change.”
And that brings me to to my final point: was there ever a season of such memorable highs in such a low season?
Sunderland have been in the Premier League’s bottom three for almost the whole season.
And yet we have Fabio Borini’s super strike to earn victory against Newcastle United at the Stadium of Light to look back on; we have that virtuoso display in the return fixture at St James’s Park and the goals of Borini, Adam Johnson and Jack Colback.
We have ANOTHER home win over Manchester City, courtesy of ex-Man U man Phil Bardsley.
And we have the Capital One Cup run with victories over Chelsea, Southampton and Manchester United at the Stadium of Light followed by the amazing penalty shoot-out victory at Old Trafford.
We have Wembley.
We have an amazing, amazing weekend in which Borini’s opening goal was only overturned by two world-class strikes from Manchester City.
Then, just last month, we have City relieved to escape with a point at the Etihad and Chelsea conquered at Stamford Bridge as the Great Escape gathered pace.
Alongside Borini’s series of magic moments and Vito Mannone’s season-long excellence – Young Player and Player of the Season respectively – we have Adam Johnson winning Barclays Premier League Player of the Month for January and, today, Connor Wickham repeating the feat for April.
This weekend, with the addition of just ONE more highlight, Sunderland’s amazing redemption, in a season in which they have been dead and buried several times, could actually be completed a week ahead of schedule.
If Sunderland beat Manchester United tomorrow and the three teams below the Wearsiders all lose, Gus Poyet’s men, barring a mathematical miracle, will be safe.
Should that be the case, then those of us whose duty it would have been to bury Sunderland, will take the greatest of delight in praising them.
But regardless of how it ends, even if it goes all the way to the wire, it will have been one incredible season, and we should be grateful for that fact and acknowledge it.
If we can all agree on only one thing this season, then it will be this: it has not been dull!
* Don’t miss the top report and reaction from Manchester United-Sunderland tomorrow, plus the biggest and best coverage of SAFC and local football, in the online Football Echo. It’s available on this website from around 6.45pm tomorrow.